By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Of the many popular misconceptions that abound about the Middle Ages, one of the most frustrating is the idea that the artists lacked technical skill and the aesthetic genius to create truly masterful works of art. This, despite the ubiquity of still extant medieval artworks on the Afro-Eurasian landscape and the continued appeal of neo-medieval architectural and artistic styles throughout the world.
The Origin of the Myth
Medieval artists are often considered, at best, to have been merely competent craftsmen whose main contributions can be chalked up to luck, accident, or naiveté. Like so many other disparagements, this one can be traced back to the successful self-promotion of the “Renaissance Old Masters” and their biographers, who had a vested interest in promoting a specific kind of heroic, and masculine, artistic individualism.
The ultimate example is the 16th century publicist Giorgio Vasari, who started his career as a painter, but who attained fame for himself and his contemporaries by authoring The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.
Vasari and Oil Painting
Popularly known and still influential as The Lives of the Artists, Vasari’s work celebrates the allegedly unprecedented innovations and achievements of his fellow Italians, whose works remain iconic specimens of individual achievement and one-point perspective. For Vasari, the most important of these innovations was oil paint, which—according to him—was a technique first discovered in Flanders at the beginning of the 15th century but which languished there until it met with the true artists of Italy.
The innovation of oil paint is indeed a crucial one, but it is actually an achievement of the Middle Ages and was in use long before its deployment by Flemish and Italian masters of the 15th century.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Medieval Legacy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Oil Painting: The Art
Painters in various media, many of whose artistry is now lost to us, have always relied on liquids to dilute and fix their pigments, usually mixing water with agents derived from natural proteins such as egg tempera, animal glues, or gums.
All of these paints have a matte or flat, opaque appearance because the evaporated water creates tiny bubbles of air which do not reflect light. Moreover, most of these paints dry so quickly that the artist has only one shot at applying them correctly and can’t modify or overpaint without erasing the first layer of color. Oil paints, however, use pressed seed or nut oils as binding media for the colored pigment and dry much more slowly due to polymerization. Also, pigments dissolved in oil remain translucent and three-dimensional in appearance.
An artist skilled in using this technique can, therefore, change the appearance of his subject through the saturation of color, the reapplication of paint, the size of the brush or knife, and the variation of strokes. And because oil paints polymerize so slowly, they can be mixed, not only on the palette, but on the painting, creating textures and the chiaroscuro effects of vibrant light and shade.
By the time that Vasari claimed this medium and its manipulation as the foundational discovery of modern art, it was at least 600 years old. Yet it is worth appreciating the artful origin story Vasari provides, precisely because it has maintained its hold on the popular imagination for so long.
According to this legend, the advent of oil paint was not a gradual development but the invention of a single 15th century genius—Jan van Eyck—who did not recognize its true potential. When Jan managed to develop a brighter and more luminous type of color by blending pigments with linseed oil, he decided to keep his methods secret and teach them only to his Flemish pupils.
But his plot was foiled by visiting Florentine merchants whose superior artistic connoisseurship spotted the difference, and who spread the news of their discovery to Italy. There, in Naples, a young painter called Antonello da Messina was fired with ambition and lost no time in moving to Flanders, where he somehow managed to convince the paranoid Jan van Eyck to train him, and him alone. He then returned to Italy, to become the first truly masterful painter of Venice.
Facts and Fiction
Vasari’s attractive fiction is successful because it reduces centuries of anonymous experimentation to a “Eureka!” moment featuring clear-cut male protagonists and the omertà of their rivalries.
The facts are messier, and much older: painting with pigments fixed in oils was already enough of an established practice that the technique appears in two closely related manuscript treatises from the early 9th century. Their common text is known as the Mappae clavicula, the “Little key to the map” or, more colloquially, “Tricks of the trade”, and it preserves a treasury of knowledge about the best ways to manufacture artistic materials and to prepare surfaces—glass, metal, tile—to receive color.
Given that much of this information seems to be derived from a Byzantine Greek source, it clearly reflects even older experiments in the Mediterranean.
An Older Invention
In the 12th century, updated versions of this treatise offer more detailed instructions for binding other types of mineral pigments to wood, stone, and glass. And it is clear from a visit to any museum or library with medieval artworks—or any medieval church—that such techniques were in wide usage long before Vasari claimed them for his own time.
This is not to diminish the achievements of late-medieval Flemish painters like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, or their earlier Italian counterparts Cimabue and Giotto in the 13th and 14th centuries; it is, rather, to place these artists in a richer and larger context of medieval artistic innovation and experimentation.
Although oil painting was thus far from new in the 15th century, it did find an allied medium that was more suited to its use at that time—canvas, which gradually came to replace the wood panels that had originally made paintings readily portable.
Common Questions about Art in the Middle Ages
Giorgio Vasari started his career as a painter, but attained fame for himself and his contemporaries by authoring The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.
According to Giorgio Vasari, the advent of oil paint was the invention of a single 15th century genius Jan van Eyck who did not recognize its true potential.
Mappae clavicula is a text from the early 9th century that preserves a treasury of knowledge about the best ways to manufacture artistic materials and to prepare surfaces—glass, metal, tile—to receive color.